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Olympic Battle for Stand-up Paddle Board: Surfing vs Canoeing

Stand-up paddleboarding (“SUP”), once categorised by the popular media as a celebrity fad, has emerged as an unlikely battleground between the sports of canoeing and surfing, with the international federations for both of these well-established watersports seeking to lay claim to discipline at Olympic level, each asserting that SUP is an offshoot from their sport.  On the one hand, the International Surfing Association (“ISA”) has been organising competitions, including the national SUP championships, for several years.  On the other hand, the International Canoeing Federation (“ICF”) claims that the use of a paddle makes it part of their group of disciplines.

SUP has been around far longer than the relatively recent celebrity trend and associate hype might suggest.  The discipline, which involves standing on a large board and using a long paddle to propel the board through the water, may in fact have been around in one form or another for centuries.  Some accounts trace it to ancient African or South American cultures which used boards, canoes and other floating vessels propelled with a long stick or oar, or to Captain James Cook’s account of sailing into Hawaii in 1778 to witness the Hawaiian people surfing and using paddles to propel the larger surfboards out onto the waves.  Others attribute its origins to the five foot wide ‘Hassakeh’ boards used by lifeguards in Tel Aviv during the early part of the 20th Century.  However, the majority of accounts agree that, for all intents and purposes, modern SUP originated when surfers began using paddles to propel themselves onto the waves or as a training exercise when the surf was flat, perhaps as early as the 1940s in Hawaii; a far cry from the realms of Olympic competition.

The battle for control over modern-day competitive SUP relates to control at Olympic level. The dispute between the ISA and ICF has arisen following the IOC’s announcement last year of the addition of five new sports (including surfing) within the Olympic Games from 2020.  Following this, the ISA applied to the organising committee of the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires for the inclusion of SUP in the Games, only to be met by opposition from the ICF, which subsequently submitted a complaint to the IOC.

Outside of the Olympic movement, the governance of sport effectively operates on the basis of self-conferred jurisdiction. In theory, any sporting body can effectively declare itself an organiser of a sport or discipline and impose a set of rules and regulations on its participants in respect of that sport or discipline. However, as the ultimate governing body of the Olympic Movement, the IOC has the power to recognise the relevant international federations for sports in relation to the Olympic Movement, in accordance with the Olympic Charter, which provides that “In order to develop and promote the Olympic Movement, the IOC may recognise as [International Federations (IFs]…

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